Engineering proves to be a job for the girls

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
All-female course run by Banff and Buchan College opens young women's eyes to the oil and gas industry's post-school possibilities

Even in their school uniforms they are glamorous enough for a fashion shoot, but these girls are not too vain to put on their boilersuits and get their hands dirty.

This afternoon they are testing out the solar collector they have built and checking whether their soldering will prove fit for purpose.

A year ago, most of these teenagers wouldn't have dreamt of careers as engineers or anything else in the oil and gas industry. But after a year on a Skills for Work energy course and some serious power lunches, there have been a few dramatic changes of career plan.

The girls are fifth- and sixth-year students at Meldrum and Ellon academies, studying Energy Intermediate 2 on an all-girl programme delivered by Banff and Buchan College and sponsored by Shell.

They have been learning practical engineering skills and discovering how the energy industry works with a strong focus on alternative energy sources like wind and solar.

The college first launched the programme three years ago, working with oil company Schlumberger and S3-4 girls at Turriff Academy to showcase energy and engineering options to young women at an early stage.

This year the scheme was launched with senior girls at Meldrum and Ellon, to remind them of these options before they leave school. "The idea is that a lot of these girls haven't taken a science, engineering, technology background up to this point but may be interested in alternative energies or in doing science, engineering and technology," says David Cook, technology sector manager at Banff and Buchan College.

The senior students have been given more networking opportunities alongside some of the smartest women in the energy industry - thanks to their mentors from Shell and some networking dinners and visits that sound suitably grand. Their teachers have watched their aspirations and confidence grow in a matter of months.

Liz Prosser, depute headteacher at Meldrum Academy, is already impressed: "One of the most obvious impacts on them personally has been really opening their eyes and minds to the oil and gas sector.

"We know we have oil and gas sector working in Aberdeen, we know we have major oil companies and major client service companies around. But maybe they're just hearing that all the time and hadn't actually thought `this could apply to me, this could be work opportunities for me'.

"I think they had also restricted themselves to think in terms of the production of oil and gas. I don't think they had thought about the wider impact of energy and renewables like solar and wind power.

"So they've learned about that but they also learned about the enormous variety of careers that you need to support such a major industry. I think that really did open their minds up to new possibilities of jobs," Mrs Prosser explains.

Meldrum pupil Katie Gauld (S5) has swapped a bright pink jacket for dark overalls to help the other girls carry their solar collector outside to harvest some sunshine. "It's been great to go out into the real workplace and see what's expected of you and what it entails," she says. "And the lunches - they were quite nice. All the ones at Shell - it was ace, so much better than school meals."

But it's not just the fine dining that has made an impression - seeing new opportunities has prompted new plans. "I always wanted to go into the business side of things. But now I think I want to go either into the business side of the oil or energy industry or even into the physical engineering out on the rigs or onshore. And I've applied to Banff and Buchan College to do mechanical engineering."

Ask her what the industry's attractions are and straight-talking Katie tells it like it is: "Working with boys, the pay, the four weeks on and four weeks off, seeing the world - or the North Sea," she laughs.

Her pal Kelsey Forman, 16, had been struggling with post-school options until now: "This really changed my thoughts on what I am going to do when I leave school. I would like to travel the world and I've been looking into the army after going to an open evening at Banff and Buchan College. I'd like to do mechanical engineering in the army after doing this course."

Another fifth-year, Paige Gunn, is interested in aviation: "I want to explore all the different parts of engineering, so I thought oil and gas would be a good area to explore. I've learned a lot that I didn't know and I think I'd like to continue in oil and gas but I am not 100 per cent sure yet."

Despite their extra-curricular attraction, the girls have found the absence of boys here a bonus: "When it's all girls, you can focus a lot more and there's not so much arguing," says Paige. "You also learn a lot from the women mentors, because they told us about their experiences."

As a result of taking this course and meeting women geologists from Shell, Becky Chadwick, a fifth-year pupil at Ellon Academy, now wants to study geology and petroleum at Aberdeen University.

"I wasn't that keen on uni to begin with, but they just said to get where you want to be, you've go to do that." She took up geology Intermediate 2 at school before Christmas.

So far, 32 girls have taken part in this programme across the three schools and it is hoped that a fourth school will be brought on board in August.

Energy lecturer Tony Scott is delighted that this latest group is responding so positively.

"I think the dynamics have been completely different in the classroom from what you would get with a mixed group. For a boy, it's nearly always about competition and being alpha male. The advantage of having all girls is that they work more collaboratively with each other and help each other."

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